Internet Safety for Teens

In the 60’s, Christian parents were outraged over the “shocking” youth culture.  However, parents today may wish for the “good old 60’s and 70’s,” because on all levels, kids today are into far worse stuff, thanks mostly to the Internet.

Who would have ever thought that the Internet would beat out television and movies as the most time-consuming form of entertainment for teens?  It has! 96% of all teens in the U.S. daily access the Internet, averaging more than four hours online every day.  It now affects every family in some way, since it can be accessed in many more ways than it once could, and it is being used by teens in ways that may shock some less Internet-savvy parents.  So, it is especially important for parents to know how their kids are interacting via digital media today, while also understanding that completely removing it isn’t always the best move.

The Breadth of the Problem 

A lot of good can be gleaned from the Internet and from use of today’s digital tools like cell phones.  The Internet is a powerful research and teaching tool.  It has become the main source for news, new music and it will eventually become the main source for books and movies.  Through cell phones, parents are able to keep in touch with their kids wherever they are, and kids can text each other.  And through video tools like Skype and social networking sites, teens and extended families can connect with each other in important and extraordinary ways.

But along with all the good, comes the bad…

Pornography (4.3 million porn sites) and suggestive invitations to participate in pornography are prevalent on the Internet and not easy to miss. Web surfers see inappropriate pictures or videos even if they aren’t necessarily looking for them and there is no cost barrier, since millions of photos are provided free.  While the porn industry has been around since the beginning of painting and photography, the Internet and digital cameras on cell phones are making it so that just about anyone can become involved in uploading their own sexualized photos as well.  As a result, no age group is more involved in digital pornography than teenagers. It has become so widespread and accepted in their culture, kids no longer see anything wrong with it.

What gets the most attention on the Internet are the images with the greatest shock value.  In other words, the most shockingly immoral or dangerous videos or photos are the most sought for and passed around.  Kids surf the Internet seeking titillating images to pass on to their friends. And many are making and uploading their own photos and videos.  As a result, every form of experimentation, from drugs to sex are openly discussed, taught, demonstrated and encouraged on the Internet today.

When kids get online and participate in what they would never think of doing in person I call it “digital courage.”  As a result, guys are getting a warped image of girls, what girls want from boys, and what boys should expect from girls. Girls are given messages that if you don’t present yourself in a sexualized way, then you won’t get noticed.  And both sexes are getting warped ideas about same-sex relationships. It’s a culture fueled by permissive messages that make it okay to be blatant about sex and silly to care about modesty.  And what’s happening online, in a fantasy world, is making its way into the real world for these kids when they spend hours engulfed in it daily.

I don’t think parents quite understand the tremendous amount of pressure that this emphasis on seduction places especially on impressionable teen and pre-teen girls. They are forced to choose between doing what is socially acceptable in their own circles and what is acceptable among their family and church.  More often than not, the social pressure to fit in outweighs their desire to be modest and follow what they’ve been taught.  Girls who’ve grown up in church may therefore begin to present themselves in ways that are not in line with the values they have learned.

Beyond the moral influences, kids fail to understand the potential practical consequences for what they carelessly post online.  For instance, the United States government announced years ago that every word “tweeted” on the largest social networking site, Twitter, is being recorded for permanent public storage by the Library of Congress.  It means that messages and images can be recalled many years from now.  Why is that an issue? For one thing, many employers and some colleges now research what applicants have been saying or posting online, since what they find there is a good indicator of the motivations and attitudes of the applicant. Educational and career choices may be hindered by the careless words or pictures your teen is posting.

Solutions No More 

It used to be that filters on your home computer could be used to block inappropriate sites, but that’s an incomplete solution today.  Parents have a bigger issue on their hands now, with the advent of wireless and handheld computers, iPads, iPhones, PDA’s and smart cell phones. Kids can get online just about anywhere, not just at home where it can be monitored. Not only are there more wireless ways to connect, 77% of kids access the Internet at school or the library, where there may be no filters at all.

According to Pew Research, 40% of all teens use the digital cameras on their own cell phones or computers to send sexual photos or “send sexual texts — a practice called “sexting.” Even if your teenager isn’t “sexting” themselves, photos and sexualized comments from other kids are being passed to them.

What’s a Parent to Do?

Parents need to realize that it is becoming nearly impossible to keep kids away from the bad stuff on the Internet. That’s why they should begin talking to their children in the tween years (by age 9) about the inappropriateness of pornography. Talk in age-appropriate terms, being careful not to spark interest in it or to make it appear that all kids are involved in it.  Revisit the topic periodically, since your teen’s thoughts and motivations will change over time. Regularly ask questions in your one-on-one weekly meeting, like, “What so you think is appropriate and inappropriate to see or talk about on the Internet or in texts.”  Be very wise in the way that you approach it so that you don’t push your child away.  Listen more than you speak and never embarrass them.

Your child is likely on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook (now for old folks), and SnapChat, so you better make sure you are on there as well.  There’s nothing like knowing that your parent may see what you say or the photos you post.  It keeps them in line.  Tell them that they must “friend” you, so you can monitor what they and their other friends are posting.  But don’t respond to their posts online or otherwise bring embarrassment to them in front of their friends. Just use it for monitoring and discuss what you find there with them personally.

Getting It Under Control 

It is important to keep in mind that all rules for use of the Internet in your home must be adapted to the age of your child and his or her responsibility level. With that being said, here are some tips for parents to get the Internet under control:

  1. PASSWORD POLICY:  Make it a home policy that parents must know all electronic passwords. This gives access if needed. Have access to their social networking account for your monthly monitoring (or don’t allow them on any network site if they can’t be responsible).   Add yourself to their “friend” list to be able to roam around on their site. Make sure their profile is “private,” so that only their approved “friends” can communicate with them.  A little monitoring goes a long way. If they refuse, disconnect their Internet access and texting on their cell phone.
  1. TRACKING:   Take advantage of parental controls offered by wireless communication companies, but also install silent tracking software and let it do its work to help you know what sites they are visiting.  Most kids learn to quickly get around blocking software and the so-called “parental controls,” but they cannot usually defy software that tracks their every keystroke.
  1. ACCESS:  Keep Internet accessible devices out of your teen’s bedroom. Keep them out in an open area with the monitor visible from various angles.  Don’t allow access unless you are in the room, and put a limit on the amount of time they may spend on the Internet.  If you have wireless in your home, shut it down after hours and when your teen is alone at home.  If your teen has a smart phone that can access Internet sites or receive photos, then have them turn it over to you before going to bed.
  1. REVIEW:  On their computer, periodically view their Internet “browser history” and follow the trail. You will be amazed; software is available to secretly record their every move if needed, especially if you think they are accessing the Internet overnight or when you are not home.
  1. READ:  Tell your teen that for the privilege of texting on their cell phone, you will periodically ask to see that they’ve been texting.  Tell them that they mustn’t erase text messages, or that will be an assumed admission of guilt. Then, do unannounced spot checks several times per month. Don’t use it as an opportunity to seek proof of other offences, but simply spot check for inappropriate messages or photos. Then, talk to your teen about what you find.

Find out who they are chatting with online. Many times, the people on the other end aren’t who they portray themselves to be, so keep your teen out of the open chat rooms.  Be especially careful if you think your teen may be interacting with an Internet stalker.  If you find anyone you don’t know asking to meet your teen boy or girl alone somewhere, immediately report it to the police.

  1. LOGIN:  Get on their social networking home page and look around.  Look at their friends.  See what they’re saying.  Look at what is being said to them.  Go visit their friend’s pages.  You might just find out something about your child that would be a perfect intro into some great conversations.
  1. TALK, AND THEN TALK SOME MORE:  If you find something inappropriate on a cell phone or computer, privately talk to your child.  Make it something you agree to both get together to talk about periodically.  Don’t accuse them and assume the worst.  All teens — especially boys — are curious about adult things and they want to see what their friends are suggesting they see.  So, be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.  You’ll be amazed how your child will respond when you speak with a gentle spirit, not one of condemnation and guilt.  You’ll be glad you found the issue before it got too big in the child’s life. Catching it early will often prevent it from becoming a life-long addiction.

I believe in privacy. I believe in trust. But I also believe in “being there” to be the parent God has called me to be. If I see anything that concerns me, then it must be brought into the open with the teen, shared, and discussed. I tell kids that I sleep with one eye open. I’m always looking for something that has the potential to destroy a relationship with them and with God.  I tell them that I’m looking out for them because I don’t want any unwelcome thing to intrude into their life.

It’s Up to You 

Monitoring your teen’s Internet use can be a lot of added work, but I believe that parents should go to no end to find out what their teen is into and who they are connecting with online, especially if it begins affecting their attitudes and behaviors.  That portal to the outside world needs monitoring. After all, would you let just anyone, even a registered sex offender or pornographer, into your house to befriend your teen?  Of course not.  The hold that an outsider may have on your teenage girl, or the hold that pornography may have on a teenage boy, may ultimately harm both them and your family. Your teen will be too embarrassed to reveal it, so it’s up to you to find out and take action.

Helping your teen become more discerning in how they surf or text on the Internet is now more important than older tactics of simply blocking teens from it. They’ll find other ways to access the Internet, whether at school or in their friend’s homes or using their friend’s cell phone or laptop computer. So, teaching them to be discerning will give kids the skills they need in a culture where it is nearly impossible for a parent to completely block them from accessing it.

Moms and dads all over the country express great frustration to me with how to positively encounter their teen living in a seductive, visually oriented, and digitally bombarded world.  The answer to their questions is always that they have to do something, rather than doing nothing.  Online and texting parameters must be set, communicated, and adhered to.  And it must be a set of parameters that are monitored, revisited and discussed often.  Remember this… rules without monitoring aren’t rules at all, just blind suggestions.



Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.orgYou can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program.  Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.

Can You Hand Me That App? Tools for Parents of Teens

Do you remember some of the tools available in our day? Think back to the first IBM computer you used at work or at home. That PC in 1983 was state of the art for its time; 16 KB of memory, a floppy drive for disks the size of a cheese slice. Oh, and did I mention that it ran the high-tech DOS operating system? Then add one of those old dot-matrix printers that made noises like a train going through a tunnel, and you had top of the line tools to get the job done. But can you imagine lugging that ancient PC in to work today and trying to do anything but play Pong?

But maybe you weren’t into computers back then. Perhaps you were like me, working on cars in your spare time. Remember when all the measurements went to metric? Sure, you could try to use your old socket set, but nine times out of ten, you ended up just stripping the nut. I had to invest in all new equipment to work on my Dodge Charger.

Here’s my point; just like your old IBM computer and your non-metric tools are no longer relevant, our old parenting tools may be obsolete now. In an ever-changing world, moms and dads must refresh and restock their toolboxes with new ways to communicate and interact with teens. If you have been working on your teen, but do not seem to getting anywhere, could it be you are using the wrong tools? If your son or daughter is resisting your parenting methods, is it time to consider an upgrade? Let me share a couple of fresh and innovative tools to help you train and guide your teen.


The scariest day in the life of parents is when their teenager runs into the house waving his new driver’s license. Suddenly, those quiet neighborhood streets morph into the track of the Daytona 500, and you picture your fragile teen desperately weaving in and out of speeding traffic in a four-wheeled death machine. Or maybe you realize that your teen has just received a token of geographic freedom, and you start to sweat, realizing that your child is now mobile!

When that fateful day arrives, what resources can a mom or dad use to ensure that their teen stays safe while driving? The first thing I’d recommend is that you download a smartphone app that disables texting and e-mail on your child’s phone while they are driving. These apps function in a number of different ways, but the concept is that your kid’s phone senses when a car is moving, and locks up so no messages can be sent or delivered. This eliminates the distractions and helps keep your kid focused on careful driving.

Another app I’d recommend is called Safe Driver. This app monitors the locations and driving practices of newly licensed teens. Download this app, and you’ll be alerted by text or email when your kids go over a certain speed. Safe Driver even records exactly where the violation happened.

Lastly, consider using a GPS tracker on the car or phone your child is using. This will allow you to keep tabs on where your teen is going and if they made it to their destination safely, without having to call and check in every half hour. Some new cars even come with navigation systems that make it easier for parents to set geographic boundaries for teens, such as highway entrances or even boyfriend’s houses!

No doubt many teens and even some parents will say that using GPS to monitor kids is akin to spying, and a gross invasion of privacy. But these tools are not about snooping on your teens. According to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, teens in vehicles with monitoring devices took fewer risks while driving than unsupervised teens. These modern devices can help you rest easy about letting your son or daughter out on the road. You are not using these tools because you don’t trust your teen, but rather because you want to trust them. It’s a brand-new way to ask the questions your parents asked you: Did you get there okay?” And “Did you drive safe?” Don’t hide from your teens the fact that you are monitoring their driving habits. In fact, make a deal with them, that after a certain period of safe driving, you’ll begin to loosen their restrictions.


            The digital age is very unlike the world you and I grew up in. So if you’re like most parents, you need a little advice on helping your teens safely navigate the realm of computers, tablets, smart phones and the ever-present Internet. The tools we picked up from our parents on the media won’t work with our teens. We need a new set of instruments to help guide and train our kids in this new era.

The incredible amount of questionable (and downright shocking) content available on the Internet is quite scary. We need to be careful about what our tweens and teens are exposed to and have access to. Some information and images can be overwhelming or confusing for kids to handle. So if you have any computers at home, the first tool you need is an Internet filter to prevent your child from wandering into the outer reaches of the web. I also recommend installing a monitoring filter like Spector Soft. They will allow you to follow your kid’s activity on the Internet, including who they are talking with online and what websites they are visiting. Again, these tools might seem like a means for parents to act like the family police force. But mom and dad, the filters and monitoring software do not give you permission to control your child. They are tools to protect your child and open up avenues of communication. If you see your teens chatting with strangers online, you don’t need to lay down the heavy hand of the law or cut off their access to the Internet. Instead, use the opportunity to talk about the dangers of chatting with strangers online, the ethics of computer use, or to ask who they’ve been getting to know and why. Offer yourself as a listening ear, and ensure that no one is asking your child to do anything inappropriate.

Since kids are being born into this digital age, parents, we need to take initiative early and train our children to use technology safely. When they’re 11 and 12 years old, you can use Internet filters to block inappropriate content. But at 18 and 19 years old, your teens will have to make their own decisions about what they will expose themselves to as they are navigating the web. Begin using these tools early on, and maintain an open dialogue with your teens about how they are using the Internet while they are still young so that they can make smart choices when they are older.


Your teen doesn’t want to get out of bed on Sunday? Seems apathetic towards church or youth groups? Perhaps now’s the time to research some new tools you can use to help your teen build their own faith. My friend Neil Franks is the pastor of a large church down in Branson, Missouri. He saw how involved people have become with their phones and devices, and how bored they have become with traditional church. Rather than bemoan the disengagement, Neil developed a product that engages people, especially teenagers, with spiritual content in way they can connect with. The 2 Minute Pastor is a phone app that provides 2-minute videos on all kinds of relevant topics and issues related to the Bible and everyday Life. Instead of merely hearing a pastor, teens can watch and grow spiritually, wherever they are! I’m not selling the 2 Minute Pastor app. But I am recommending this as a great new tool for moms and dads who have teens struggling in their faith.

And before you think that all these tools I’m suggesting are state-of-the-art and techy, let me also tell you that no tool in the hands of parents is better than a good question. At the right time, and in the right moment, you can ask a question that gets your child talking and sharing their lives with you. You don’t need a computer or an iPad. You just need a willingness and a little creativity to say, “Hey, what do you think about this movie?” or “What’s your biggest goal this year?” or even, “If you could be anyone in the world, who would you be?” A good question is one tool in your parental toolbox that will never be obsolete.


            Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.org.  You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program.   Here you can download the Parenting Today’s Teens App, a great way to listen on your schedule.